I Missed It at the Movies: Objections to “Raising KANE”

From the Spring 1972 issue of Film Comment; this is also reprinted, with a lot of contextual material, in my 2007 collection Discovering Orson Welles (where I’ve also retained my original title — not used by Film Comment, who ran it as an untitled review). I’m still hugely embarrassed by the assertion early in this piece that “[Kael’s] basic contention, that the script of KANE is almost solely the work of Herman J. Mankiewicz, seems well-supported and convincing” — a howler if there ever was one. I’m not sure if this would qualify as a valid excuse, but this was the first lengthy essay about film that I ever published.

Recently I‘ve been reading Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael, and I’m very pleased that he’s up front about the serious flaws of “Raising KANE,” factual and otherwise — but also disappointed that Kellow is unaware that “The Kane Mutiny” — signed by Peter Bogdanovich, and the best riposte to Kael’s essay ever published by anyone — was mainly written by Welles himself. (See This is Orson Welles and Discovering Orson Welles for more about this extraordinary act of impersonation.) It appears that the main source of this doubtful assumption in Kellow’s book is Bogdanovich himself.Read more »

Les Valseuses (1975 review) 

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 503). I think I must have permanently jinxed the possibility of ever becoming a friend of Pauline Kael’s by introducing myself to her after the New York Film Festival’s press screening of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs in 1978. Clearly enraptured, she promptly asked me what I thought of the film, and I replied, “Well, at least it’s better than Les valseuses,” which she deeply revered as well. — J.R.

France, 1974
Director: Bertrand Blier

After harassing a woman in the street and stealing her purse, Jean-Claude and Pierrot steal a Citroen for the afternoon; when they return it, the hairdresser owner holds them at gunpoint until they manage to escape during a scuffle, taking the hairdresser’s girlfriend Marie-Ange with them. Pierrot, however, is shot in the groin; the two force a surgeon to treat the wound and then take his money. When they abandon another stolen car to hop a train, Jean-Claude pays a young mother to suckle Pierrot before she gets off to meet her soldier husband. They take another train to the town of Briddle, where they break into a house whose owners are away but where they excitedly discover the underwear of teenager Jacqueline.… Read more »

How The West Was Won

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2001). — J.R.

John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall directed the individual episodes of this 1962 triptych about the settling of the American frontier, originally released in Cinerama. The Ford episode, about the Civil War, is uncommonly good; the rest is expendable, especially without the three-screen process. With Carroll Baker, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. 155 min. (JR)

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Eastern Promise

From Movies of the Fifties, edited by Ann Lloyd (London: Orbis Publishing, 1982). Prior to this, it was published in one of the “chapters” of The Movie in 1981 or 1982, but I’m no longer clear about which one. — J.R.

For two centuries, Japan chose to isolate itself from the rest of the world. Then, in 1894, the American Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and ‘rediscovered’ the Japanese islands. Yet nothing was known about Japanese cinema in the West for almost another century. The difference was that whereas Perry had come upon a country that appeared technologically backward, the west encountered a cinema that was, on the evidence of the films that began to be shown in the Fifties, every bit as advanced as its own.

By and large western recognition and appreciation of Japanese films can be said to have dated from the appearance of key movies at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals.Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1951 and the same honor was bestowed upon four films by Kenji Mizoguchi in the succeeding years. The films were: Saikaku Ichidai Onna (1952, The Life of Oharu),Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain), Sansho Dayu (1954, Sansho the Bailiff ) and Yokihi (1955, The Empress Yang Kwei-Fei).… Read more »

Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough

From Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1975, Vol. 42, No. 499. — J.R.

Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough

U. S.A., 1974Director: Guy Green

Cert--AA. dist–CIC. p.c–Paramount Pictures. In association with

Sujac Productions and Aries Films. exec. p–Irving Mansfield. p–Howard

W. Koch. p. manager–Howard W. Koch Jnr. asst. d–Howard W. Koch

Jnr., Lee Rafner. sc–Julius J. Epstein. Based on the novel Once Is Not

Enough by Jacqueline Susann. ph–John A. Alonzo. Panavision. col

Movielab. ed–Rita Roland. p. designer--John DeCuir. a.d–David

Marshall. setdec–Ruby Levitt. m–Henry Mancini. songs—“Once Is

Not Enough” by Henry Mancini, Larry Kusik, sung by–The Mancni

Singers; “All the wav” by Sammy Cahn, James van Heusen, sung by

Frank Sinatra. titles–Dan Perri. sd. ed–Robert Cornett. sd. rec–Larry

Jost. sd. re-rec–Doc Wilkinson. l.p–Kirk Douglas (Mike Wayne),

Alexis Smith (Deidre Milford Granger), David Janssen (Tom Colt),

George Hamilton (David Milford), Melina Mercouri (Karla), Gary

Conway (Hugh Robertson), Brenda Vaccaro (Linda Riggs), Deborah

Raffin, (January Wayne), Lillian Randolph (Mabel), Renata Vanni (Maria),

Mark Roberts (Rhinegold), John Roper (Franco), Leonard Sachs (Dr.Read more »

THE GHOST THAT NEVER RETURNS (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1976. — J.R.

Prividenie, Kotoroe ne Vozvrashchaetsya
(The Ghost that Never Returns)

U.S.S.R., 1929
Director: Abram Room

 

In an unidentified South American country, José Real is serving a life sentence for having led an oilfield workers’ strike ten years earlier. After another prisoner breaks away from guards to tell him that the prison governor has a letter from his wife, and then leaps to his death, Real leads a revolt among the prisoners. The governor orders that they be sprayed with hoses; the revolt subsides, and Real is locked into a narrow cupboard. Conferring with the chief of the secret service, the governor recalls the regulation whereby a prisoner who has served ten years is entitled to one day’s liberty and decides to grant this to Real, with the understanding that he will be killed at the day’s end for trying to ‘escape’. After being shown his wife’s letter and hearing from a newly arrived prisoner that a new strike is planned at Hillside Well, Real agrees to go. Five days later – after news of his imminent arrival has reached his family, their neighbors and the oilfield workers — he sets out, warned that no one who has taken this leave has ever made it back alive.… Read more »

Wall of Sound (on MORTAL THOUGHTS)

This appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 26, 1991. Consider this review Part 2 of a long-term re-evaluation of Alan Rudolph’s use of music and his treatment of working-class people, preceded by my 1979 review of Remember My Name for  Film Quarterly. — J.R.

 

MORTAL THOUGHTS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Written by William Reilly and Claude Kerven

With Demi Moore, Glenne Headly, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, John Pankow, and Billie Neal.

For all his talent and sophistication, Alan Rudolph has frequently shown a romantic slant toward the working class that borders on stylistic gentrification. Even in my two Rudolph favorites, Remember My Name (1978) and Choose Me (1984), the ironic casting of a construction worker and his wife with real-life mod couple Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson and the creation of a dream-bubble ambience in a gritty bar suggest a kind of put-on.

Life is a dream, Rudolph always appears to be saying, and the more sordid and low-down the life is, the more seductive and precious the dream becomes. It’s a viable enough premise for a mannerist, and he invariably makes the most of this conceit; yet there are times when his taste for cardboard funk causes his worlds to totter like houses of cards.… Read more »

Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen

From the Winter, 1995 issue of Cineaste. — J.R.

Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen

by Michel Chion. Translated and edited by Claudia Gorbman; Introduction by Walter Murch. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 239 pp., illus., Hardcover: $93.00; Paperback: $23.85.

Eighteen years ago, during my first quarter of film teaching, I terminally alienated some of my students in a lecture course on film esthetics with the following lesson in materialism. First I showed them Buñuel and Dali’s silent Un chien andalou several times, each time with a radically different musical accompaniment. Then I asked them on a quiz whether the statement, “The use of different kinds of music to accompany a silent film changes the film profoundly,” was true or false. Afterwards I explained to them that such a statement could only be false because the film remained the same regardless of whatever music accompanied it; the music changed only the way we looked at and ‘read’ the film, not the film itself.

I’m not recommending this as a teaching method, especially if one wants one’s contract renewed (mine wasn’t), but I’m bringing it up to illustrate the degree to which a certain amount of mystification about the relationship between image and sound is firmly entrenched in the way we think about film.… Read more »

Recommended Viewing: Travel Ban

Because everything that we call news qualifies in some ways as propaganda that seeks to entertain as well as engage us, what we’re usually seeking is entertaining propaganda. From this standpoint, one of the most watchable and entertaining things I’ve seen lately is Travel Ban: Make America Laugh Again, a lively documentary about Middle Eastern standup comedians in the U.S. It’s every bit as funny and as lively as Bill Maher’s Real Time, and it’s well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. [10/14/2018]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnT1sKFu7XM

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Reflections on Agee’s Complete Film Criticism: Reviews, Essays, and Manuscripts

Posted on the Film Comment web site, October 16, 2017. A French translation of this essay by Jean-Luc Mengus has recently been published in Trafic. — J.R.

Agee

My late father was never a cinephile, not even remotely, but he managed and programmed a small chain of movie theaters in northwestern Alabama for about a quarter of a century, from the mid-’30s to 1960. And during most or all of that period, he read Time magazine every week, from cover to cover. This means that from September 1942, half a year before I was born, until early November 1948, and not counting all the press books that passed through his office and the various trade journals he subscribed to, just about everything he read and knew about movies came from the so-called Cinema pages of Time, and most of these were written by James Agee.

AgeeFTFphoto_17

But he probably had little or no idea who Agee was during this period, even though their stints at Harvard had overlapped, because none of Agee’s writing for Time was signed and my father usually didn’t read The Nation while Agee was concurrently writing his film column there. It’s unlikely that he saw Abraham Lincoln, the Early Years on Omnibus in 1952 because we didn’t have a TV set then, and more probable that he saw The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky in Face to Face the following year at one of his theaters.… Read more »

Lisl Ponger’s Cinema: The Lessons of Ignorance

I believe that this essay was completed in spring 2010 — for a rather formidable book about Austrian experimental film edited by Peter Tscherkassky, Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, available here and here and here.  — J.R.

LislPonger

1

The lessons available from Lisl Ponger’s cinema take many forms, but perhaps one could claim that most of them are separate versions of the same lesson — the lesson of coming to terms with our own ignorance. This is already apparent in the most elementary way in the earliest film of hers I’ve seen, Film — An Exercise in Illusion 1 (1980), a travelogue in which any precise sense of what it is that’s traveling — the camera? the camera’s aperture? the scenery? — becomes ambiguous. More specifically, if the essence of film in general and film illusion in particular is motion, these three minutes of silent, super-8 shots of Venice, filmed from a moving boat — or maybe it’s one shot and/or several moving boats — features movement within the camera as well as outside it, through extreme changes in light. Which is another way of saying that we don’t really know what we’re watching, even if it’s the nature of film illusion to persuade us that we think we know, conning us into superimposing some touristic narrative over whatever we’re seeing.… Read more »

Ingmar Bergman Today

I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piece for the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I haven’t had much desire to reprint until now (mid-October 2018), when I’ve decided to attach the printed version as an afterthought. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable.

I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to illustrate the attic scene that I describe in The Magician, so I’ve substituted a still from Sawdust and Tinsel at the head of this piece that suggests some spatial disorientation. [2015 postscript: a generous reader, Dan Roy, has helped me out with the attic scene.] –- J.R.

TheMagician-attic

TheMagician-attic2

If memory serves, my first taste of Ingmar Bergman was The Magician, seen at the 5th Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, en route from a New England boarding school to my home in Alabama during spring break.… Read more »

Critic With A Camera

From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 2000). It’s delightful to report that this film is now available in the U.S. from Icarus Films. — J.R.

One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Chris Marker.

Industry flacks claim that Hollywood movies have been dumbed down out of commercial necessity — they’re just giving audiences what they want. I don’t buy it. Audiences aren’t being offered intelligent movies, or at least those aren’t the ones getting multimillion-dollar ad budgets. This was especially the case during the past summer, though as usual, most of the press tolerantly excused the fare as standard silly-season stuff — as if we and not the industry and their advertisers were responsible. The flacks may love to shift the blame by telling us how dumb we all are, but their contempt finally may be causing a minor counterreaction.

Difficult, demanding, and incorrigibly serious art movies have been becoming more popular — though that may be less the result of a backlash against Hollywood than of a growing awareness that the makers of art movies are more respectful of the seriousness, intelligence, and spirituality of moviegoers. The first solid indication of this trend I noticed was the nationwide success of the Robert Bresson retrospective, which came to the Film Center in the spring of 1999 and drew enough crowds to warrant a partial revival of the series a few months later.… Read more »

Circle’s Short Circuit

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1999). I deeply regret never having had the opportunity to see this film a second time. If memory serves, Stracke once promised to send me a copy, but he never got around to doing so. — J.R.

th

This 1998 Caspar Stracke feature is one of the rare experimental films in 35-millimeter, and though I could preview it only on video, it kept me fascinated even in that format. Stracke describes it as moving in a circle with neither a beginning nor an end; in the version I saw, the credits come in the middle. A lecture on the philosophical and psychoanalytic implications of the invention of the telephone by theorist Avital Ronell eventually turns into a story in black and white about a woman who has a lotus blossom growing in her left lung; at different times this film comes across as documentary, essay, performance art, and silent throwback (complete with intertitles and irises), and the capabilities and rhetoric associated with both computers and VCRs play a part in the continuously shifting and evolving discourse. (JR)

th-1Read more »

Sights and Smells and…

From The Soho News (July 2, 1980). This was my first encounter with the delightful and inspired couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, subsequently known for their wonderful found-footage films, e.g. From the Pole to the Equator (1987) and Prisoners of War (1995). — J.R.

One interesting thing about aesthetic hybrids — movies with smells, or jazz posing as film criticism — is that nobody knows what to do with them, critics included. Whether these unusual and unlikely yokings represent examples of useful, exploratory or merely wishful thinking is essentially a matter of personal taste. In the two instances under review, a crucial factor in determining one’s taste is packaging, pure and simple — how and where an audience gets placed.

Apart from isolated experiments — including a recent one by Les Blank, reportedly utilizing the odors of red beans and rice — it seems that commercial efforts to link smells with movies have mainly come in two separate, pungent waves. A couple of early talkies, Lilac Time and The Hollywood Revue, played around with the idea in a few theaters; the latter, a plotless musical, climaxed with a snoutful of orange scent to go with “Orange Blossom Time,” performed by Charles King and the Albertina Rasch ballet company.… Read more »